When you ask most high school seniors applying to seminaries in Israel what their goals are for their gap year, they usually respond with variations on some common themes: to study more Torah, to improve their textual skills, to live in the land of Israel, to meet new people and to have new experiences.
The Israel seminary experience is certainly an opportunity for yeshivah high school graduates to do all of the above.
It is also an opportunity for young women to learn about themselves.
With every opportunity comes responsibility, and responsibility often comes with obstacles. Some of the challenges students face during their year in Israel, such as communicating with family overseas and getting American products, have become easier over time. While, to its credit, our community has developed greater awareness about certain more sensitive challenges facing the seminary student, it still has a ways to go in dealing properly with them. In their book Seminary Savvy: Every Girl’s Guide to a Successful, Safe, and Satisfying Experience—in Seminary & Beyond, Debbie Fox, LCSW, and Michal Eisikowitz detail effective ways to responsibly navigate difficult and delicate situations during one’s year in Israel.
Seminary Savvy is an easy read about difficult topics. Each chapter is dedicated to empowering young women to confront challenging situations that may arise during their first long-term experience living away from home. Young women living and learning together over the course of a year or more can find themselves in complex social and emotional situations. While the year away from home affords the opportunity for personal independence, it can be ripe for social codependence as well as for intense feelings of competition between girls. These dynamics likely existed previously in school, in camp or both, but manifest more acutely when girls are together 24/7 for an extended period of time. They can also be exacerbated by the tension of being far from family. The book draws attention to these issues and provides clear examples of healthy and unhealthy relationships.
In a non-alarming but direct fashion, the book dedicates chapters to inappropriate relationships with adults, from taxi drivers to Shabbat hosts to mentors whom students turn to for advice. The authors point out that visiting families, participating in chesed opportunities, having chavayot and establishing relationships with Torah mentors are some of the most impactful aspects of the year in Israel experience. All parties involved, however, must approach these interactions with appropriate boundaries. Furthermore, students during this year away from home may be feeling particularly vulnerable and needy. The authors depict appropriate and inappropriate scenarios, and encourage young women to get the most of their experiences without being compromised.
A running theme in the book is the “fifth volume of the Shulchan Aruch: common sense;” the authors implore young women to listen to their inner voice, a vital message for them to hear at this crucial time in their lives. It stresses that if something feels wrong and uncomfortable, “never ignore that inner voice.”
At the same time, Fox and Eisikowitz emphasize that going to Israel with a list of trusted adults whom one can turn to with questions may be among the most important things on one’s packing list. How one chooses a trusted adult and what happens if he or she disappoints one are also discussed.
Seminary Savvy is written for students, but parents are encouraged to read it as well; reading it together with one’s daughter, in fact, provides a wonderful opportunity to discuss sensitive matters. At the end of each chapter there is a “Make It Real” dilemma. The scenarios are realistic and often do not have obvious resolutions.
If young women are aware of some of the potential dangers before they get to Israel, they are more likely to recognize the red flags. But might it be too little too late? Perhaps parents should consider conveying these important messages of empowerment, smart choices and proper boundaries to their daughters at an earlier age so that it becomes second nature to them way before their year in Israel.
One minor criticism of the book is that it does not address some of the negative effects social media can have on the seminary experience. This too is an area where students require a certain level of savviness. The year in Israel can provide young people with a chance to experience greater independence; but this process can be curtailed if students are constantly in touch with their parents and include them in making every minor decision. Our children need to know that their parents are available and are trusted confidants, but for too many, the cord is not the least bit frayed, let alone cut, as they enter into adulthood.
Moreover, with the rise of social media, time for personal reflection and privacy have become increasingly scarce, all of which takes a toll on opportunities for personal growth and development. A chapter on tools to avoid the pitfalls of social media would have been beneficial to both parents and students.
Fox writes, “Go b’shalom and return b’shalom.” Seminary Savvy allows one to do just that, serving as an invaluable resource for those heading to Israel for the year. The book provides excellent advice to young women on how to steer clear of unsavory people and unhealthy relationships, and how to find peace within themselves, allowing them to take full advantage of the wonderful opportunity to learn Torat Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael.
Rebbetzin Elisheva Kaminetsky is the director of religious guidance at the Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls in Hewlett, New York.